“We have a snow-man!”


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Ultima Thule, the snowman

The quote in the headline comes from Alan Stern, the principle scientist for New Horizons, during today’s press conference revealing the first high resolution images of Ultima Thule. The press release for this conference is now online. The image on the right is a reduced cropped version of the main release image today. If you click on it you can see the full resolution version.

The images reveal that Ultima Thule actually is two objects in contact with each other. In addition, the snowman description is apt, as it has a mottled appearance as if it was shaped roughly and somewhat gently over time. Tiny pebbles and rocks softly came together to form two snowballs that then eventually came to touch and join.

They describe this as the most primitive object ever observed. It is also dark, and red in color, like dark reddish dirt.

More images and data is still coming in, to be released in another press conference tomorrow.

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16 comments

  • Steve Holmberg

    Mr. Z., I’d just like to say thanks for doing what you do and blessings upon you in this new year. Love this site!

  • Col Beausabre

    NASA had better get with the program, it’s not a snowman, it’s a snowperson

  • Jason Lewis

    This is incredibly cool stuff. These people are my heroes, not the professional sports people or the Hollywood actors. In the press conference, Alan Stern used the term “raw exploration,” which I thought was appropriate for this pioneering work.

    Did anyone else catch the oddball social sensitivity question that Alan got? It starts a 52:38 in the link below. Here’s my transcription of the question. Alan got applause for his answer.

    “Yeah, hi, this is Alex Witze(?) with Nature for Alan. There’s been a lot of chatter in the last 12 to 24 hours about some of the historical associations with the nickname Ultima Thule. Can you talk about how you justify continuing to use that nickname for this object.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSHOOFBxRvA

  • Jason Lewis

    The double lobed shaped seems strikingly similar to comet 67P as seen from the Rosetta spacecraft (see https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap160202.html ). It seems that these shapes must been fair common.

  • Chaim Arnstein

    Bob, when 2 spacecraft dock with each other, it requires careful calculations to ensure that the don’t collide.
    Is there any known physics to explain how two objects in space just happened to kiss and stay attached? Probability?

  • Orion314

    After watching hrs of Utube vids on NH, mission, I was massively underwhelmed at the imagery and flabbergasted how JPL et al could not pat themselves hard enough on the back. I was waiting for jumping jacks and bowing up and down like team Honda. The worst hype job I’ve seen in a while to keep eating at the Taxpayer fed USG trough. I’m confident they will figure out how to analyze this for another decade or so. Affirmative action/ jobs program gone amuck. I bet they are 99% dems.

  • mpthompson

    I wonder if the two objects were bouncing against each other for a long time before finally coming to a rest, wearing down each others surface similar to rocks in a rock tumbler.

  • Col Beausabre

    “There’s been a lot of chatter in the last 12 to 24 hours about some of the historical associations with the nickname Ultima Thule. Can you talk about how you justify continuing to use that nickname for this object.”

    Yeah, what’s wrong with you ? It’s name thought up by dead white males. You have to come up with a god from some obscure native religion, you insensitive cretin.

    Question – “there’s been a lot of chatter” REALLY? By who and where? I’m serious. Where’s the frootcake coming from on this? Or just another example of “We’re here to protest, what we’re not sure, but we’re against it”

  • Vladislaw

    They describe this as the most primitive object ever observed.

    I believe the word they used was pristine object .. not primitive..

  • wayne

    Q:
    Do we know the total mass of Ultima Thule?
    (tangentially– dumbest Name ever in recent memory. And I have no idea of the historical significance of that name. If however, it offends SJW’s and other western civilization-hater malcontents, then I’m magically all for it.)

    Chaim–
    It’s all “normal” physics. There’s no reason why these objects wouldn’t aggregate themselves over time, as long as their initial velocity, rotation, etc. were low enough.

    –“An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”
    –for the behavior of objects for which all existing forces are not balanced: “the acceleration of an object is dependent upon two variables – the net force acting upon the object and the mass of the object.”
    –“when two bodies interact, they apply forces to one another that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction.”

    mpthompson-
    that’s an intriguing thought.

  • wayne: They do not know the mass of Ultima Thule, and don’t really have a way of obtaining it. New Horizons is traveling too fast, and the object’s gravity is too small, for the spacecraft’s path to be shifted enough to provide this data point.

  • Dick Eagleson

    mpthompson,

    Your bouncing scenario seems unlikely. The two objects that came together to form Ultima Thule would have to have been approaching each other very slowly in order for their shapes to be preserved. As both were most probably icier versions of Bennu/Ryugu-type rubble piles, their coefficients of elasticity wouldn’t likely have been sufficient for any bouncing to take place. A modest amount of material was likely dislodged from both objects by their very low-speed collision. Almost all of this probably rejoined the combined object in the form of the “neck” of the object we see now.

  • Edward

    Chaim Arnstein,
    When two spacecraft dock with each other, they are careful to prevent damage during the operation. Two bodies, such as these, need not be as careful, and if they were in similar orbits then they may not have been travelling very fast relative to each other.

    Orion314,
    I’m not sure whether you were expecting lakes, rivers, and foliage, but so far all we have really seen are bodies that have been more affected by the warmth of the sun. Comparing and especially contrasting what we have already seen with Ultima Thule should give us plenty more data points about the nature of the solar system, its formation, and the wear and tear of the objects orbiting closer to the sun and of comets that dive toward the sun.

    mpthompson,
    It may depend upon whether the two objects were solid and “inelastic” like billiard balls (lots of bounce), whether they are gravelly rubble piles (as Dick Eagleson suggested) and behaved more like Hacky sacks (not much bounce), or whether there was melting (e.g. ice turning to slush) or other damage during the initial collision (maybe some bounce). Wouldn’t it be nice if we have enough information about it to determine which it was?

  • Orion314

    Edward, think of Thule as a single body , worn down in the middle due to plasma physics , instead of 2 separate bodies joined together by an aeons long gravitational “kiss’

  • Edward

    Orion314,
    You wrote: “think of Thule as a single body , worn down in the middle due to plasma physics , instead of 2 separate bodies joined together by an aeons long gravitational “kiss’

    A nice thought, but:
    1) I can’t quite imagine the mechanism of wearing down only the middle, and

    2) If this is the case, then why on Earth would you be “massively underwhelmed at the imagery and flabbergasted how JPL et al could not pat themselves hard enough on the back“?

    If JPL found such a body, then this discovery would be worth much more celebration.

    On the other hand, perhaps you are being sarcastic and actually think that one heavenly body is just like all the rest, and if that is the case for your underwhelmment, do you think that sending probes is a waste of effort?

  • pzatchok

    Maybe we should have named it RuPaul.

    Then everyone would be happy.

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